Millennium, The by Sinclair, Upton, 1907

Millennium, The by Sinclair, Upton - Book cover from Amazon.co.uk

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Upton Sinclair's The Millennium is by most definitions not really science fiction. To most it is a semi-autobiographical propaganda tool that Sinclair used to advocate for his own version of socialism and communal lifestyle. But since it's also a future history that relies on a few technological changes, and is dotted with examples of far-out technology, it has found a home here in my SF reviews. Penned originally in 1907 as a four-act play after a fire destroyed the Sinclair's communal home (Helicon Hall, which created a great scandal during its year of operation) into which Sinclair had plowed the entirety of the fortunes he earned from the publication of The Jungle, The Millennium: A Comedy of the Year 2000 resounds these days as the final sputtering words of a great social reformer as he began his long, long slide into obscurity and ridicule. Simultaneously idealistic and absurd in tone, it is a very typical socialist propaganda piece in that it only shows what is wrong with everyone else's way of life, and never bothers to explain how the happy little socialists who live in their worker's paradise deal with the problems that always seem to crop up behind their own walls, such as apathy, laziness and greed. The 1924 rewrite - the version I read for this review - went quickly, and although it managed to draw me in for the day it took me to complete, I can't say that it would have been able to recapture my attention had I had to put it down for more than an hour or two.

The Millennium is the tale of eleven survivors of a global catastrophe of their own making, and the struggles that they went through to rebuild society after everyone else died. Set at the beginning on New Year's Eve 1999, the eleven have gathered on the rooftop of the Pleasure Palace, the Central Park retreat of the ancient Mr. Lumley-Gotham, the president of the United States of the Western Hemisphere. A party to celebrate the opening of the 100 story tower is due to begin shortly. Billy Kingdon, a high-born "caste rebel," who turned his back on high society to help the underclasses and who was engaged to Lumley-Gotham's daughter, Helen, five years ago, has returned under pain of death to the family residence to convince Helen to elope with him. But Helen was matched in a marriage of convenience to Granville, the Secretary of State, who has wormed his way into the good graces of the president. Once reunited Billy and Helen professed undying love for each other. But Granville caught them and had Billy confined in a brig under guard.

As the party began the president and Granville were alerted to a situation developing in the City. A mad scientist had developed a gas from a substance called radiumite that if exposed to the atmosphere would kill everyone on the planet. Radiumite was a recent invention that promised to provide extremely cheap power with little pollution, but the gas was another story altogether. The president's staff told him that the gas would only effect the atmosphere close to the Earth, so he decided to take to the skies, just in case the gas was released. As it happened, the president's brand new super-sonic "aeroplane" was on the roof of the Pleasure Palace. The plan was to take everyone for a ride before the end of the party anyway, so their early departure would not panic the other guests that they were leaving behind to die. Billy was a trained pilot, and in fact that was how he stole into the Pleasure Palace in the first place; disguised as the pilot of the aircraft, called "The Monarch of the Air." Granville ordered Billy out of the brig so that he could fly the ten most important folk of the party above the effects of the gas. As soon as they got into the air, the police broke into the scientist's lab and the jar was shattered, killing everyone left on the surface of Earth.

Higher and higher rose the Monarch of the Air, till it became a mere speck of light; and meantime the agitation of the guests increased. Then all at once (e)very (sic) light in the apartment was extinguished; the next moment the room became filled with a vivid, blinding light. The guests, with their hands clasped to their heads, shrieked in agony, and collapsed upon the floor.

The light faded away, and there followed utter darkness, and a hush as of a tomb. Eleven people had gone up in the Monarch of the Air; and as that was the only machine allowed in the sky that night, those eleven were now the only human creatures left alive in the world!

Soon after landing the former masters of the universe came to realize that all the servants were dead and that they would have to work for themselves. Very few of them were cut out for that, but even bigger changes were afoot. Helen never had loved Granville, so she and Billy announced that they would marry each other. Still wedded to the law of their past lives, Helen's mother refused to allow that to happen, and the surviving Bishop in their party refused to marry a divorcee. Billy and Helen did not relish the idea of living in a backwards-looking society that refused them the things that they needed to be happy, so they announced that they would leave the group and form a colony elsewhere to be set up as a socialist paradise, where all citizens would be required to do nothing more then work to their ability, and would be entitled to take in accordance with their need. Another of the young, unwed women, an coal heiress named Sarita, went with them. The others accused them of founding a "free love" colony (a common detraction that was frequently hurled at Sinclair's own Helicon Hall) and let them go.

Helen, Billy and Sarita set up a socialist paradise in the tony Hudson Valley community of Pocantico (the home of one of Sinclair's greatest rivals, John D. Rockefeller, Jr.) while the eight who remained in New York City found themselves stuck on a course of misery and headache. Once Billy left the group Mrs. Lumley-Gotham's former servant, Tuttle, enslaved the rest (save for Granville, who was younger, bigger and stronger than Tuttle) and set himself up as a king. Tuttle maintained control by frequent beatings and imprisonment. This lasted until the slaves made Granville their Duke in exchange for protection, and that lasted until Tuttle discovered how to work a machine that made food-pills that would keep the former slaves healthy. After realizing that they could both survive off the labors of their slaves, Tuttle and Granville offered them the pills in exchange for obedience. The eight remaining survivors essentially evolved their little society-in-microcosm from slavery, to feudalism, then to capitalism, only to learn that the serfs and workers are nothing more than slaves under each form of government. Out of all options save for one, the former masters of the universe learned that the only true path to enlightenment was through socialism; a form of government where they collectively would own all of the tools necessary for survival.

Although the lessons of the last fifty years of civilization were almost as far in the future for Sinclair when he penned this story originally, and even though we are now in the middle of a societal mess that can really only be blamed on the excesses of capitalism, it's difficult to miss the charm of this little politically extreme story. To be sure, this story is from the deepest part of Sinclair's heart. His characters wear it on their sleeves, and watching their transformation from parasites into citizens is moving. But there are elements of the story - likely attempts at absurdity - that make the whole thing a bit silly. All but one of the characters come from the upper-crust, and were very reluctant to engage in any scandalous behavior, especially the older ones. As the younger broke off from old relationships and recoupled, one of the greatest complaints from their elders had to do with the unseemliness of it all: "What will you do when the newspapers find out?" the young were constantly asked. Of course all of the producers and all of the readers of all of the newspapers were dead (it didn't help the situation that one of the survivors, de Puyster, the society columnist for the local New York paper, was insane and tried every day to call his stories in, sometimes as they were happening), but that didn't stop the worriers from vocalizing. Of course Sinclair spares few barbs for the gilded-ones in the early parts of his story. Whether they were dining on their final canapes of deviled skylark livers, or showing their collective idiocy as they tried to light a fire, it's pretty clear how he felt about the rich and parasitic:

"For goodness sake," cried Eloise, "why doesn't someone turn on the heat?"

"I suppose the furnaces are out," was Sarita's suggestion.

"Furnaces out?" cried Mr. Lumley-Gotham. "But that's preposterous! In the middle of April? Send for the major-domo! Send - oh, I forgot!"

Said the Bishop addressing the company: "Is there anybody who knows how to run a furnace?"

Silence followed. Apparently there was nobody. "We'll freeze to death!" wailed Mrs. Lumley-Gotham.

"We must surely have a fire," said Helen, moving about impatiently.

"How does one start a fire?" inquired Eloise.

Reginald Simkins got up. "You have to find something that will burn," he said.

The Lord Bishop arose also. "Something that's wood, I believe." He began examining one of the gold chairs. "Do you suppose there is any wood in this? They sometimes make chairs of wood, don't they?"

"Seems to me I have read about it," said Reggie.

In parts of the book the scorn never stopped.

As a utopic piece, The Millennium took an approach similar to Olaf Stapledon's in Darkness & the Light. In that story Stapledon told the tale of the world from two perspectives, originating from a historical precedent that could have gone one of two ways. Here Sinclair told the stories of two groups of survivors with inopposite cultures after a common catastrophe: his purpose was to shed light on the errors of society, and give the reasons why socialism should prevail. But like usual, his focus was not truly on the benefits of socialism, or how the socialists proposed to overcome certain societal ills, but instead on the evils of the capitalist system. It seems to me both systems have to overcome the same obstacles. Sinclair did address some of them, but he utterly failed to discuss the inherent risks of the socialist approach. In a capitalist system the workers, who have nothing to add to the system save for their blood and sweat, have to figure out how to keep the rich, who have amassed all of the resources, from lording it over them and making them destitute slaves. In a socialist system the workers have to figure out how to keep their neighbors from growing lazy and putting less labor into the system, and also keep them from taking more then they need; they have to keep them from being lazy and greedy because if they don't, the system will have few resources for the others, leading to destitute paupery. These are Marxian problems that society was dealing with, and we have come a long way since then, but I cannot see how much of it has really changed. Nevertheless, the thing of true value to Sinclair, and to the characters in this book, is the worker's experience. It is not until the former masters have had to swallow great droughts of that, that they are able to conclude that the socialist system is the only tenable one, and that they were fools for not realizing it before. The point is that within the context of the message it is not a failure to forgo a description of the problems that the socialist utopia faced. Unlikely, I know, because the piece probably would have lost much of its propaganda value. Still, it would have been nice.

Without meaning to (probably) Sinclair also capitalized on other SF tropes and purposes, including prediction. In this story can be found mad scientists, early aviation pulp ideals, skyscrapers, and atomic fears. Like I said above, though, don't read this purely for an SF experience, because its author intended something different.

Reviewed by GTT · Rating Rating of 2.5 star(s)

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